Love At First Sight -- The House Hunt Phase One
I fell in love with our Victorian home the first time I spied it on Zillow.com. Like most houses still standing after the ravages of two world wars, a Great Depression, sub-zero winters, knob and tube wiring, a 1970's kitchen remodel, and similar calamities, I thought it had HUGE character. Mike’s house-hunting radar, on the other hand, was aimed at rustic yet modern properties sitting on the shores of various lakes. “We could have a boat and boat house and our own dock!” he announced during one of his Internet scavenges for secluded lakefront retreats.
“But look at this house,” I countered while waiving my iPad in front of the computer screen. “It’s huge and made of brick with fish scale siding and it was built in 1898 and it has all of its original woodwork and two fireplaces and high ceilings and an awesome creepy basement and a garage and a grand foyer and a great big attic and four bedrooms and a maid’s staircase and it’s walking distance to a cutesy downtown area and OMG it has a friggin’ tower and turret! It’s a castle! I could be like Rapunzel!” I say while doing a mock swoon.
"I don’t like it,” he announced without much elaboration other than reminding me how much work and money it takes to keep up an old house. Not willing to throw in the towel, not by a long shot, I argue emphatically, “Yeah, but it’s only $119,000.” No response.
Now, the magic words: “And I bet we can get it for less.”
A seed was planted. The titanic clash between ladylike Victorian loveliness and manly mountain-house rugged was less than a year away.
Love at Second Sight -- The House Hunt Phase Two
A week or so later, Mike was on his iPhone, again perusing realtor websites. “Hey, check out this house,” he suggested as he handed over the device, casually mentioning, “. . . it’s only $119,000.”
I glanced at the screen, expecting another house on a lake in the middle of 200 acres of timber surrounded by 300 acres of nowhere. “No? What’s this?” I thought, instantly recognizing my dream house staring back at me. I decided against explaining this was the same house he pooh-poohed just a week earlier. Instead, I seized the moment, filled out Zillow’s “Contact Agent” e-form, and tapped the magic send button.
Not too many minutes after firing off the Zillow e-volley, I got a phone call from a local real estate agent named Greg Bosscher. I explained to Greg that Mike and I wanted to leave California, and we were considering moving (just about anywhere outside the State of California, just throw a dart at a map) to Michigan. After expressing some curiosity as to why we would do such a thing, Greg said he could help. After a few follow-up calls, I could tell he was responsive, hard-working, and knew the area in question like the back of his hand. So, Mike and I decided Greg was the man to navigate us through the acquisition of our dream home in a strange new land called Cadillac, Michigan.
Love at Third Sight -- The House Hunt Phase Three
Not too long after convincing our Midwestern real estate agent to work with some overly-zealous Californians and get us that house, Mike booked a flight, rented a car, and stuck me on a (FIRST CLASS!) flight to the frozen tundra of Northern Michigan. All by myself.
I pulled into Cadillac late on a Friday night, too late to do a stalker drive-by of the brick house on Harris Street, so I went straight to the Holiday Inn Express. Snowmobiles were whizzing around the parking lot perimeter. “Jeez, is this a parking lot or an ice rink?” I asked myself while literally sliding into an available space. Turns out, both. My first step on Cadillac ground lasted about one cartoon-second, the amount of time it took for my feet to go flying ala Patrick and the banana peel. Falling on my ass was the easy part. Have you ever tried to wheel a suitcase across an outdoor ice rink while wearing boots from Diane Von Furstenberg's fall collection? I almost died.
The next morning, I left the hotel an hour before I was supposed to meet Greg’s house-showing agent appointee, a lovely young lady named Lacey. Of course, the house is only 3 minutes from the hotel. So, I spent 57 minutes skidding around the historic district in my rent-a-Jeep, rolling through stop signs and bouncing off curbs while excitedly snapping pictures for Mike.
Look at some of these houses!
(Photo #1. The Frank J. Cobbs House. It has its own Wikipedia page and isn't it just so Gone with the Wind minus the snow?)
(Photo #2. Cute green Victorian. I was thinking, "A little late taking down the holiday decor, aren't we?" but now have a profound understanding of the perils of Cadillac's ice and ladder killer combo.)
(Photo #3. A to-die-for purple and pink Victorian. Imagine my delight seeing no apparent restrictions on paint colors. Yippee!)
(Photo #4. And here we are! The Charles E. Russell house on Harris St.)
After my tour, I parked the rent-a-Jeep, probably illegally, then slogged my way to meet Lacey and see our house for the first time. Other than an exceedingly crappy kitchen and an equally bad downstairs bath, the house surpassed my expectations. It needed a lot of work, no question about it, but it had what we old house nuts call "great bones." I'm passing over a lot of detail for now, but suffice to say, the house had me at hello. Mike, who I looped in via Face Time, was also sold.
If I had to pinpoint the one thing that sealed the deal for us, it's this. The unfinished attic. With its soaring pitched ceiling, turret room, and views of Lake Cadillac and at least three old, gorgeous churches, it was and is a jaw-dropper. Immediately, Mike and I saw massive potential in the space for a super master suite. The house was old and majestic for sure, but I was determined its grandest days would lie ahead.
(Photo #5. The attic in its current state, temporarily serving as a lamp graveyard.)
(Photo #6. We love the ceiling pitch and the chimney in the middle of the room. BTW, the ill-fated "ceiling" framing installed by a prior owner is coming down. We want the ceiling to follow the pitch of the roof all the way up.)
(Photo #7. Another shot of the attic. As previously noted, it was framed, before we bought it, like someone else was planning to convert the space. I can't say what they were going to use the space for, especially given the alarming number of electrical outlets. Maybe a pot farm? I don't know.)
(Photo #8. The turret room with views of Lake Cadillac and lovely churches.)
After leaving the house (I was not permitted to sleep there, apparently), I decided to walk around and check out the 'hood. My eyes were watering. I couldn't feel my fingers or toes. It hurt to breathe, but I managed to make my way to Mitchell Street aka Highway 131 aka "Main Street." Walking along Mitchell, I noticed a sprawling establishment with signage boasting a restaurant, a deli (soon to be wine bar), a butcher shop, a wine shop, and an inn all rolled into one. So much activity in one place, I thought. Unbeknownst to me, this was a Cadillac icon simply known as "Hermann's."
I stood outside Hermann's shivering and staring at its third wing, which consists of the butcher shop and wine shop. If I go in, I thought, I can get a bottle of wine to take back to the Holiday Inn Express and celebrate one of life's big adventures. But on the other hand, if I come in from the cold, my nose will run like a faucet once I hit the hot air, and then when I come out again, surely snot will freeze to my face.
What to do?
About 30 seconds passed while I stood there in limbo, contemplating the two outcomes. I decided a bottle of wine was worth the risk of frozen snot. I went in and headed straight for the wine selections. During my search for something with a screw top that didn't taste like Easter egg dye (I had no corkscrew at the hotel), I was greeted by Dave, one of Hermann's employees. Dave helped me with my selection before retreating behind the counter to ring me up.
Interested in a local's perspective, I told Dave my husband and I intended to move to Cadillac from Southern California and asked him what he thought about the town, etc. Dave said he loved it here, and that he had moved from Garden Grove, California to Cadillac not too terribly long ago. I was surprised to find a fellow OC-er at Hermann's in Cadillac, Michigan, so, intrigued, I continued to chat Dave up about this and that and yack, yack, yackity, yackity, yack, yack.
The topic eventually moved to the price of real estate in Cadillac. "Right," Dave exclaimed while punctuating his statement with an almost surprised look on his face. "You can't believe how nice a property you can get here, on a lake, for like a $120,000," he continued. "I know," I gasped, "You should see the house we're looking at in the historic district for $119,000!" Dave says, "Yeah, the deals are incredible. There's this great old brick house up on Harris over that way (points), and I know the seller will take $90,000 for it."
I stare at Dave without speaking. Wheels are turning. Then, "Is that the house up there between Park and Simons?" I ask, knowing with certainty from my street tour there is only one house matching that description in the vicinity. Dave affirms. "Gosh, that's such a good deal," I say. "How do you know they'd take $90,000?" Dave answers, "Well, it's been on the market for years (dragging out the "ears" in "years"). It's owned by this investment group and I think they just want to get rid of it. One of the investors was in here at the restaurant last night and was begging me to buy it. I told him I already have a house and don't need another one. But he said I could afford both houses because they'd take $90,000 for it."
My first experience in a small town was pretty positive, I'd say.
We closed the deal at $95,000. You probably wonder, why didn't you dig in your heels at $90,000? Seems the flip side of living in a small town is that you need to be cool about things.
(Photo #9. The half-empty $20-ish bottle of screw top wine from Hermann's -- California vintage -- that saved us $24,000.)
And now, the house is ours. We've been here almost one year, and we've done quite a bit of work, but the attic project has to wait until we finish redoing the kitchen (as it turns out, Mike only has two hands). We expect the kitchen project to be done in a couple months. In the meantime, what are we doing for a master bedroom?
Well, since you asked . . .
Front bedroom plan #1: I don't even know where to start
Light, bright, airy, and really darn dumpy. That pretty much sums up the front bedroom when we moved in.
The room is on the second floor (third if you include the basement). It is right above the parlor, so it borrows partially from the same footprint, minus the wonky angled fireplace corner. There is a standard Victorian three-sided bay window arrangement facing the front of the house, which is off to the right when you walk in the door. A radiator painted white abuts the right-most window. Straight across from the door is a window providing a spectacular view of the neighbor's porch roof and second story siding. The closet is to left of the entry door. The walls are plaster under wallpaper under layers of paint under more plaster and more paint. There is bead board set at a 35" height. The bead board, which is an unfortunate architectural detail, appears to be an afterthought that was added some time after the home's original construction.
In keeping with the general conditions of the room, the paint was peeling from every door and window casing. The walls were rough and cracked. The cracks, in turn, had undergone a half-assed patch job. There was narrow crown molding -- again, not an original architectural detail -- which bobbed and weaved around the room, separating from the walls and ceiling here and there but not everywhere. The otherwise beautiful floors are gouged to high hell in one particular spot.
Lighting in the room was provided by a circa 1980 ceiling fan that made screeching noises at every speed. Spiders and webs filled every corner of the room and the windows. Spiders also decorated the blades and bells of the ceiling fan. Have you ever seen spiders dangling on the ends of webs attached to the rotating blades of a ceiling fan? They float through the air like creepy little circus performers attached to the underside of a merry-go-round.
(Photo #10. The front bedroom as depicted on the real estate website. Trust me, this picture is flattering.)
The only thing that could make this room more fabulous was our furniture. The bed, armoire, and bedside tables came from our mountain house in Tehachapi. More specifically, the king-sized bed frame -- Mike's most beloved possession outside his tricked-out F250 -- is made of giant logs twisted in free-form fashion. The armoire is Mexican Rustic and the side tables are old sewing machine treadles with wood tops. There was also a Mexican Rustic console table thrown into the mix, but we reluctantly moved that out of the room when we realized the one place we could put it was on the ceiling. Oh, and a gold-painted writing desk serves as my vanity.
Where would I even start with such a bleeping mess? Do I even have to ask the question when the answer is so clear?
I'll start with a Murano chandelier!
Front bedroom plan #1: The Italian asshole strikes again
Right. So not long after we un-boxed the Giuseppe Pepto Bismol Puke Murano, we pulled out four more chandelier we purchased from that idiot. In total, two were pretty nice (even if one was the wrong color). Three were totally comical crap.
Mike conceded to abandoning the Pepto Puke Murano, but he was more stubborn about the others. According to his logic, we'd paid a lot of money for these masterworks, so we needed to hang them no matter how bad they looked. I was a little sheepish over the Giuseppe debacle so I didn't push back, even though this particular fixture looked like a six-year-old's tempera paint art project. It bore no resemblance whatsoever to what I thought I'd bought, but why not hang it over the bed? After all, isn't it a good idea to decorate your bedroom in a manner that ensures you wake and start every day with the appropriate amount of anger and bad attitude?
(Photo #11. The second Giuseppe Murano as falsely depicted on his website. I should have noticed the typo following the "www" when I ordered the stupid thing. Clue one.)
Following installation of this piece of crap (see photo #12 below), we started work on the walls, doors, and window casings. Because of the striking color combination in the Giuseppe Murano, I had no idea how to paint the room. I wanted to cry. Instead, I took five paper paint sample cards, closed my eyes, shuffled the deck 10 times, and the sample card on the top, Behr's "Ethereal White," was the winner.
Here's a pictorial log of how this all proceeded.
(Photo #12. The Giuseppe Crayola Magnifico is in the foreground. In the background is a patched and repaired wall.)
(Photo #13. The door, now peeled and sanded down to a brown paint layer, with some test splotches on the adjacent wall.)
(Photo #14. Lots of wall repair going on here.)
(Photo #15. Mike peeling latex paint from a window casing. Someone at some point in the recent past didn't do a great prep job in this room. Again, we had no interest in lead paint abatement, so we sanded down only to the point of respiratory death and then smoothed things out.)
(Photo #16. I'm just hating this room, but nonetheless move forward with the plan.)
Front bedroom plan #1: It's done and it pretty much sucks (so now what?)
The one good idea Mike and I had during the execution of front bedroom plan #1 was spray painting the flowers on Giuseppe's Crayola Magnifico a pearly turquoise. This made it more tolerable. But the final reveal of this room was less than impressive.
(Photo #17. Nothing -- from the log bed and rustic armoire to the traditional curtains to the ornate ceiling medallion -- belongs here. I threw a rug down to hide the floor gouges and covered a mismatched chair with a fluffy throw. The art is a thrift-shop collection of flower oils from the Tehachapi house.)
(Photo #18. A different camera angle doesn't make things any better.)
(Photo #19. I painted the bead board, casings, and doors the same "Ethereal White," which actually is a very soft blue, as was painted on the walls. With so many different themes and styles going on in the room, I thought adding to the craziness by painting out detail would intensify the room's cringe-worthy factor.)
(Photo #20. The decorating challenges presented by a big ass rustic log bed in a Victorian bedroom cannot be overstated.)
Front bedroom revised plot: How the hell do I get out of this?
For four months, I schemed ways out of a decorating mess caused by yet another pivotal light fixture. I knew the only way to make clunky mountain-house furniture work in a Victorian bedroom would be to throw out every rule in the book. Paint the furniture something unexpected but unifying, and then paint the room a dramatic color. The final touch would be some colorful art capable of reigning in the madness. And of course, a new chandelier.
In sum, I had to get Mike to agree to four things. One, the Giuseppe, even in its currently revised turquoise state, needed to go. Two, the bed, the rustic armoire, and the ceiling had to get painted metallic gold. Three, we needed to paint the white radiator and repaint the room. Four, we needed to go on a wee little art shopping spree!
Ready, set, go!
Mike's first cave-in was the metallic ceiling. He liked that. Once he was feeling the whole metallic vibe thing, I was able to convince him the precious log bed and armoire would be much better off if they were painted gold. That was a tough sell, but I'm a lawyer, so I know my way around an argument.
We also had a pretty red and metallic gold crystal chandelier conveniently sitting in the basement. It had been earmarked for the kitchen, but the kitchen was months away from completion and therefore could afford the sacrifice. I would table replacement of the kitchen chandelier to a later time.
The art shopping spree? That was a little more difficult. But it would be much more palatable if it was by his favorite artist, Michael Cheval. All it took was finding some great deals on the Chevals, and this room would be one for the books.
Front bedroom revised plot complete!
Needless to say, I found great art deals. I have been buying art from Park West Art Gallery at various land auctions in Southern California for about fifteen years and really like the gallery. Much to my surprise and delight, Park West is in Southfield, Michigan, so Mike and I got to do a "down south" weekend trip. While we were there, we explored multiple fascinations at the Henry Ford Museum of American Innovation in Dearborn. This museum is a "must see." It houses everything from elaborate old dollhouse to presidential limousines dating back to horse and buggy days (including the limousine in which JFK was assassinated) and enormous Allegheny steam engines.
(Photo #21. Mike standing next to an Allegheny at The Henry Ford Museum of American Innovation.)
I also had, by this time, discovered the wonders of the most stupendous paint brand on planet earth: Farrow and Ball. For the bedroom, I chose a "bright and cheerful vermilion" called "Blazer." There's a lot of hoo hah about whether Farrow and Ball is better than other paint brands. Yep, easily. It's paint is a mixture of chalk, clay, and titanium dioxide so it doesn't have the same "latex-y" texture as other brands. And the pigmentation is spectacular -- there's so much depth and mutability in the colors. I just can't tout this brand enough.
Anyway, here's how bedroom #1 finally turned out.
(Photo #22. Front bedroom revisited. Again. The velvet vermilion chair against the window is one we've had for many years. The over-the-top old world bedding is by Reilly-Chance.)
(Photo #23. Close-up of the metallic log bed. Drapery is ruched in a "paprika" color from Half Price Drapes.)
(Photo #23. Now that things were more pulled together, I could paint out some detail on the doors and trim. The metallic paint is Modern Masters "Tequila Gold." For the doors and bead board, I used Farrow and Ball "Blazer" in high gloss. The walls are the same color in the estate emulsion finish. The switch plate is Susan Goldstick.)
(Photo #24. Of course, I also painted the tops of the sewing machine treadle tables metallic gold. The Hollywood Regency lamp is a fail from the parlor. The pretty Victorian shade is handmade by ShadyLadytx on Etsy.)
(Photo #25. The table lamp is a Schonbek we've had for years. The art was one of my first Park West purchases, an original painting by Michael Kachan. The drapery hold backs are from Half Price Drapes.)
(Photo #26. Mike painted the radiator a dark metallic color. Not an easy feat. The chair is a steal from the parlor. The "absurdist" art is by Michael Cheval and includes Analogy of Dischord, Hide and Seek, and Time to Be Queen.)
Final thoughts and lessons learned
I'd like to say the moral to this story is, if at first you don't succeed, try and try again. Nope. It's this.
1. Don't keep crappy things you don't like and for sure, do not let them dominate your decorating strategy.
2. If you have big things you can't part with that don't work in a room -- like a craggy, free-form log bed that is trying to find lifelong love and happiness in a Victorian bedroom -- tie them in with a unifying, unapologetic color. Seriously, under these circumstances, you've got to go bold or go home.
3. Never underestimate the power of art, color, and a fabulous chandelier to transform a room from boring to blazing.
You'd think with all this experience I wouldn't make the same mistake twice.
But I did. The re-re-decoration of the middle bedroom currently is afoot.
More to come. For now, I'm headed off with Mike for "date night" at Hermann's, where we'll see our wonderful new friends -- Greg Bosscher and his lovely (and lively) wife, Michele!